Golden Globe nominee Tilda Swinton returned to the Sundance Film Festival with the remarkable documentary, Derek, which she wrote and produced, a film about Derek Jarman, without whom, she recalls, the actress would not be where she is today. She talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: One of the things about Derek, is that the film’s as much about London during that period as it is about Derek himself. So I’m just wondering how much of that time you recalled when you guys were working on this film?
Swinton: Well, that’s very accurate, actually. The film is – we are friends and collaborators of Derek, both Isaac and I. And I think we probably all wondered to ourselves how great it would be – you know, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a film about Derek? But there was really no way of imagining how one could do it, until two things happened. The film is sort of built on two sort of textural things. One was that in 2002. I was asked to write a lecture – deliver a lecture. Derek Jarman inaugural lecture at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Which I wrote as a letter. And that was the foundation of the text. What was the inspiration, though, was the response to that letter, because it was really quite amazing, how many people, both people who had never heard of Derek, and also people who had, and had worked with them, came out of the woodwork who said, “Do you know what? We have all sort of forgotten that time.” It has been – although we haven’t forgotten it. But it has been forgotten. It has been strangely – it’s like a trap door closed, and the carpet went over it, you know? So my point being that we realized that it was a timely subject. Not just to remember an extraordinary and unique artist and individual. But a time, when a kind of work was possible, that frankly has become impossible now for all sorts of reasons. So that was one thing. That was a sort of – an interesting thing to us. Ah! There are people who are interested in downloading that time again, looking, and seeing what lessons we can draw. And then the second sort of hurdle about making a film about someone like Derek was that even though he wrote extraordinary writing, and he made extraordinary films, and he had an amazing influence as a political activist and as an artist, the real buzz about him for anybody who met him, was him. He himself was a very charismatic individual. And I think being a charismatic individual was part of the reason why he got things done, actually.
Question: Why do you think Jarman’s level of individual artistic self-expression is lacking in today’s cinema?.
Swinton: You know, the funding structure’s changed radically. And the whole cultural map changed as a result. There was a time – filmmakers like Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter, Isaac Julien, Ron Peck, Terence Davis, were encouraged to develop a voice as artist in the ’80s –
Question: Even during Thatcher’s England?
Swinton: Well, she put the kibosh on it, frankly. The aftershock of her measures put the kibosh on it completely. And the British Film Institute production wing, which funded all of these artists. And I don’t mean they funded the odd project. They funded these artists to develop their voices. Was closed. And all the funding for film became kind of encompassed under an umbrella, which is now called the UK Film Council, which is very closely allied to a kind of tourism objective. And funded by the lottery, largely. I mean, it’s a completely different thing. The idea – in those days, the idea of making a profit was absolute anathema to film artists.
Question: What about when Derek was in his last period of his professional life. Was it just as easy for him, or did he still have to – did he end up struggling as an artist?
Swinton: It was never easy for him. I mean, the truth is that this film did not get funding from the UK. Derek’s films were almost always mainly funded by ZDF in Germany, and Uplink. And – you know, anyway. So that time – that time has really – it’s gone. I mean, we’re – I’m an endless optimist. I think that things are really pretty bad now, and so they’re gonna have to get better. People are gonna have to find different ways of working. What Derek did was, he did find different ways of working. I mean, when he decided to make certain subjects, and they were subjects that could be written down in script form, and budgets could be raised for them, and therefore 35 millimeter could – was appropriate, and could be afforded, he did that. But when he was working more experimentally with subjects that weren’t – that didn’t fall under that description, there were no budgets. We shot on Super Eight, collated the work like you would collate an anthology of poetry, and put it together, and then looked for some money to blow it up after the fact. There having been no script. There being no sort of budget meetings or committee approval or anything. I mean, it’s a whole different strategy.
Question: Obviously Derek had a huge influence on all of your lives. Would you be the actress that you are today without having had Derek in your life?
Swinton: I don’t think there’s any way that I would be what you call an actress now if I hadn’t met Derek, because working alongside Derek made it possible for me to be the way that I have to be. I couldn’t have worked industrially. I mean, if Derek hadn’t existed, and the only cinema that had been available to me had been everything else in the UK at that time, which was basically – you know, Richard Attenborough or Merchant Ivory – there’s no way I would be working in film. Because that –
Question: I can see you work in a Dickie Attenborough movie, actually.
Swinton: Well, you can see it in your dreams. You know? I mean, I think he gave me the possibility to be what I was anyway and I think that’s what he did everyone. I mean, you say he’s an influence. Absolutely, of course he was an influence. But what he mainly did was just – you know, created an environment in which people could develop their own work. In a sense – and I always say this – he made filmmakers of all of us. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he made directors of us. But he made a filmmaker sound guy out of the sound guy. He made a filmmaker costume designer out of the costume designer. He made a filmmaker performer out of the performer. And that was to do with the environment of the work, and the sort of model. It was so pre-industrial and free.
Question: Twenty-five years or so, roughly, after the AIDS epidemic.
Swinton: Which AIDS epidemic? That one. There are others. Yes.
Question: That one. How timely is this documentary, do you think?
Swinton: I think it’s very timely in the sense that it’s very much about trying to make us become aware of this history. The history which has been completely, as Tilda mentioned, put under the carpet, so to speak. And I think there’s a way in which, by bringing this history to the surface, it reminds us, really, of some of the actual struggles that people had to go through at that particular moment. And obviously people still do now. But I think there’s a way in which, perhaps it’s particularly noticeable, making the film, how difficult it was. I mean, how it was really completely, made Maydipar [?] really, really got after. I mean, it’s incredible. If you really, really, when you see the film retrospectively – you know, you do see how brave he was, really. And he was shut out by those bodies. And yet he prevailed. I mean, that’s what’s so extraordinary. I think t other thing about Derek, and the other thing that’s interesting for these – you know, there are now, as I say, at least two generations of young, interested, cine-literate film students, or just people, who have never heard of Derek Jarman. And who may be absolutely tuned in to the sensibility of the work. But they just haven’t had the opportunity. You know, getting his work put out on DVD is a struggle. It’s taking a time. But the thing I think that’s also interesting is that again, not just because of his sort of unique status. But because of his workaday status, in the sense that he was – just in a long line of a very honorable tradition, of kind of outsider. Very literate outsider artists, in England in particular. Which goes back to Blake. I mean, he was a poet and the English have a bad record of ignoring, eating their own visionaries. And I think he was a visionary.
Question: Have you had that problem as an actress?
Swinton: Oh, I’ve been eaten, digested, and shat out. Yeah. I’m happy about that. No, I don’t – I live within the precincts of the United Kingdom, but I have absolutely no – what’s the word? Profile there, at all.
Question: Which makes this film somewhat ironic for you, you live outside England’s periphery.
Swinton: No, it’s not ironic, it’s consequent. If anything, I’m just saying it how it is. And that the other thing to remember about Derek is, you know, he wasn’t the last in any line. I mean, he has descendants. And I have to say with pride, Isaac and I are his descendants. You know. And there are others. We are in the line. And there is a question for all of us who descend from that sensibility. What do we do now? Where do we go now? And we all found different strategies of how to work.
Question: Your Coen Brothers movie, clearly.
Swinton: You – but you do a combination of a Coen Brothers movie and a Narnia film, which makes a billion dollars, which makes it much, much easier to get people to talk to you about a Derek Jarman documentary, by the way. You know.
Question: I would talk to you even if you weren’t in those movies.
Swinton: You’re so kind. But then you’re enlightened, Paul. You know, there are strategies that we all have to attain.
Question: I mean, the thing I love about talking to you is I do get to talk to you about all these different things. I mean, we’ve spoken about every kind of film that you’ve been involved with, whether they’re Hollywood big films or not. And I like the fact that you can make that journey. And you did talk about that you’re going to do – that you have ideas for a film as a director. If you direct, will you be a Derek Jarman disciple, or you will be a Coen brothers disciple?
Swinton: Well, I think there’s no point in making that leap until one is just one’s self. I mean, one could choose worse models, let’s face it. They’re very close relationship, I think. Derek and the Coen brothers. There’s a close relationship. But I don’t think there’s any point in making that step until one can only – you know, one is forced to only be one’s self. If one was gonna be – you know, I would hold off on that decision until such time as I really knew what I was going to do.
Question: You finished the Coen brothers movie, right?
Swinton: Yeah, we’ve finished it now.
Question: And are you Clooney’s lover in it?
Swinton: I am, yes.
Question: That must be tough.
Swinton: It’s tough. Married to John Malkovich and sleeping with George Clooney. Although Clooney and I said to each other the other day, we’ve yet to be in a film when we say something nice to each other.
Question: When do you think you’ll make the leap to director?
Swinton: I don’t know. Not yet. Well to be honest with you, I don’t really want to. [LAUGHTER] I don’t really want to. I’ve lived alongside filmmakers for so long that –
Question: The fact that it takes a year or more out of your life.
Swinton: A year or more? Every film I make – well, most of the independent films I make – take at least five years out of my life.
Question: Well, you’ve produced a lot. Like, you produced this one.
Swinton: Yeah. It takes a long time.
Question: What do you think you will be doing next?
Swinton: I know what I’m doing next. I’m going to Berlin next month with this film, and also with an Erick Zonca film called Julia. It’s about an alcoholic woman.
Question: Another lighthearted escapist –
Swinton: Yes. But you know what? Lots of Disney fans will go and see it, so there you go.
Question: You’re not in the new Narnia?
Swinton: I’m dead, aren’t I?
Question: Well, I don’t know. She’s a witch.
Swinton: I think so. I think I am.
Question: We don’t know.
Swinton: Well, exactly.
Question: Do you know what you’re shooting next?
Swinton: What am I shooting next? Yes, I do know what I’m shooting next. I’m shooting a film in Italy with my friend Luc Guademeno, which we have actually been writing and trying to put together for at least five years.
Question: And will this get sold, do you think, to HBO or something?
Swinton: Derek? It’s gonna be in multiplexes, I think, isn’t it?
Question: It could be the next Narnia. In fact, it’ll be double billed.
Swinton: It’s gonna be a double bill. Well, I think the next Narnia film will be a trailer. One of the reasons I did that Narnia film was Derek, actually, because Derek, it was always his favorite film – and he says it in Isaac’s film. He says that his first film he ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, and he was completely obsessed with the witch. And when I was asked to do it, I thought – I could hear Derek saying to me, “Do it! Do it!”
Question: And I look forward to seeing you at the Oscars.
Swinton: It will be fantastic. We’ll all be at home in our pajamas watching it on television. Although I don’t have a television set.
Question: Boy, you are independent.
Swinton: Who needs a television?